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Film / Inside Llewyn Davis

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Inside Llewyn Davis is a 2013 comedy-drama film directed, written and co-produced by the Coen Brothers. The story follows the titular character (Oscar Isaac), a Greenwich Village folk singer, travelling through New York and Chicago over the course of one week in 1961. Despite being a talented musician, nothing in life seems to be working out for him, and his confrontational, careless and self-destructive personality only serves to sabotage his situation further. The supporting cast includes Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver and F. Murray Abraham.

This film provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Ambiguously Bi: Was Mike Llewyn's partner or...partner? Certainly the depths of Llewyn's grief indicates it could have gone either way. Their duet song, which deals with the grief of a woman whose husband has died, seemingly describes Llewyn's own relationship with Mikenote , and Llewyn notably alters the lyrics' genders when singing it solo for the public. When Roland Turner asks him upfront if he's queer (noting that Greenwich Village was famously a Gayborhood) he's careful to dodge the question, and when his fellow patrons engage in homophobic heckling he bitterly refuses to join in.
  • Animal Motif: It's subtle, Lleywn has a cat motif. He's accompanied by cat imagery and his characterisation of a couch surfer connotates with a stray cat. His wardrobe also connects to a tabby cat. Tellingly, his phone conversation with the receptionist has her mistakenly ask "Llewyn is the cat?" to underscore the parallels.
  • Berserk Button: Llewyn's mere existence seems to be one to Jean. During one conversation with him, she cannot go a single sentence without calling him an asshole.
  • Book Ends: The film opens and ends with Llewyn performing, and later getting beaten by a man in an alley, an event that is revealed to have taken place at the end, chronologically. Both at the beginning and end of his week, Llewyn is staying with the Gorfeins, and the audience hears a rendition of "Fare Thee Well." All this demonstrates a circular rhythm to Llewyn's life, and his feeling of being stuck in one place. On the other hand, certain details hint at things taking a step forward for the better, from things as simple as preventing the cat whose name is Ulysses from escaping, to the performance of a song that once relied on his deceased partner indicating his moving towards acceptance of his death.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Part of the tragedy of Llewyn's character. He is shown to be a great musician, but he doesn't have what it takes to make it big. His unpleasant, self-destructive and careless personality mean that his life and career are apparently caught in a cycle of mediocrity.
  • Brutal Honesty: Bud Grossman. After hearing Llewyn play a good, but rather academic folk song, he states, "I'm not seeing a lot of money here."
  • The Cameo: Mike Timlin's singing voice is provided by Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons.
  • Casting Gag: Justin Timberlake plays a musician in a folk duo who strikes it big after going solo, while his former partner falls into obscurity after their breakup. Timberlake was a member of the popular boy band *NSYNC in his youth, and was—quite famously—the only member of the group who managed to have a successful solo career after their breakup.
  • Dark Reprise: Llewyn plays "Fare Thee Well," which had been his signature duet with Mike Timlin, one last time at the end of the film, with a more subdued presence and different, lonelier lyrics.
    • Could also, at the same time, be considered a kind of Triumphant Reprise: Whereas his previous attempt to play it at the Gorfeins' dinner triggered a grief-stricken rage, his performance near the end may indicate his acceptance of Mike's death.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Llewyn reaches this towards the end, having his dreams of stardom crushed, finding out Jean slept with Pappi to get him his last gig, visiting his dementia-ridden father, and deciding to go back to the merchant marine only to find out he doesn't have the papers and is stuck in his old way of life. When Bud tells him he should "get back together" with his old partner, not knowing that he committed suicide, Llewyn drily remarks "That's good advice."
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The lyrics to "Please Mr. Kennedy" sound noticeably like an American soldier begging the President not to send him to war. Appropriate, since the film takes place just a few years before the United States' entry into the Vietnam War.
  • Downer Ending: Llewyn ends the film having achieved nothing and in an even worse state than before, lying bruised and bloody in the alley and with his career doomed to amount to nothing while Bob Dylan is about to achieve the success and icon status Llewyn could've had were it not for a combination of bad luck and his own personality flaws.
  • Foil: Many of the characters that Llewyn meets over the course of the film help to highlight aspects of his personality and outlook on life.
    • Troy Nelson is a soft-spoken, ever-smiling idealist, in contrast to the acerbic and cynical Davis. Unlike Llewyn, he is seen as a potentially marketable and lucrative asset by the music industry.
    • Jean is similarly foul mouthed and acerbic as Llewyn, and also seems to gain a completely incongruous, almost angelic quality when singing. However, she aims to earn some money and settle down, something Llewyn regards as "selling out". Also unlike Llewyn, she does not appear ready to accept any responsibility for her own mistakes and failings.
    • Al Cody represents the sort of self-reinvention and falsity that Llewyn sees in the folk scene as a whole, and which he himself refuses to embrace, to his own disadvantage.
    • Llewyn's sister, who represents to him the everyday "square" existence of non-artists, and the ultimate conclusion of "selling out". He sees such a lifestyle as "existing" rather than "living".
    • Roland Turner is an aging, foul-mouthed junkie who makes Llewyn seem downright pleasant by comparison. It is possible that Llewyn sees in him the logical conclusion of the development of his own personality, a few years down the line: a great musician who has been left a bitter and friendless Insufferable Genius with no audience worth speaking of.
    • Bob Dylan, who appears at the end of the film is the unspoken presence looming over Davis's story. He possesses many of the qualities that Llewyn does not, and is willing to make many of the compromises that he refuses to make, such as self-reinvention, "inauthenticity" and "selling out," right down to renouncing the whole folk music scene within a few years. As a result, he becomes a music legend and one of the great artists of the twentieth century, while Davis is doomed to mediocrity.
  • Foreshadowing: Llewyn is warned twice that taking his money immediately will forfeit his royalties to "Please Mr. Kennedy." It's obviously going to become a hit.
  • Hate Sink: Roland Turner is a rude, vulgar, arrogant, drug-addled, and generally repulsive human being with zero redeeming value as a person, who represents what Llewyn is well on the road to becoming: a great musician condemned to a life of small-time mediocrity thanks in no small part to their awful personalities.
  • Hero of Another Story: The stories not told on screen are at least as important as the one that is.
    • The Gorfeins' cat must have experienced lots of adventures on the way home, lampshaded by his name Ulysses and the appearance of a poster for the 1963 film The Incredible Journey. This epic voyage of return stands in contrast to Llewyn's own "Shaggy Dog" Story — which is more similar to James Joyce's Ulysses.
    • The other cat that Llewyn picks up also has an off-screen story of her own, albeit one that ends less happily.
    • Ultimately, as pointed out in this article, the true unspoken protagonist of the whole story is Bob Dylan, who only appears at the end and is never named. He will be everything Llewyn is not, and is already making the beginning of his own "incredible journey" while Llewyn is wandering aimlessly through New York and Chicago. To add insult to injury, both Llewyn and this character's signature songs share the refrain "Fare Thee Well."
  • Historical Person Punchline: The musician Llewyn briefly sees at the end of the film is, naturally, Bob Dylan, whom he is both literally and figuratively opening for. The Clancy Brothers also make an appearance in an earlier scene.
  • How We Got Here: The first scene of Llewyn being beaten up in the alleyway behind the Gaslight chronologically takes place at the end of the film. Over the course of the film, the audience gets to know the reason for this event, as well as the identity of the act that he is sharing a billing with that evening.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Roland Turner gives an extended and presumably well-practised speech about how he doesn't make threats, because if he wants to screw you up he'll just do it with his voodoo powers and you'll never know he did. Which... sounds a lot like a threat.
  • I Have a Family: Invoked in "Please Mr. Kennedy", where the narrator is listing the reasons why he doesn't want to be an astronaut.
    I won't be known as man of the century
    If I burn up upon reentry
    Gotta red-blooded wife with a healthy libido
    You'll lose her vote if you make her a widow
    And who'll play catch out in the back with our kid?
  • Insufferable Genius: Llewyn is a talented musician, but he is also an arrogant, selfish, abrasive douchebag who can't seem to enter any sort of situation without leaving chaos and a wealth of burnt bridges in his wake.
  • It's All About Me: Llewyn's main flaw. In reverse, Jean's attitude is "It's all your fault" when dealing with Llewyn.
  • Jerkass:
    • Llewyn himself. His considerable talent arguably makes him an Insufferable Genius.
    • Roland Turner is an ageing, heroin-addicted jazz musician who is not afraid to be insulting in anything he says. He shows absolutely no sympathy when hearing that Llewyn's singing partner killed himself.
    • Also Jean with her Never My Fault worldview, cheating on Jim (who is obviously a square but doesn't do anything otherwise to deserve the treatment), constant belittling of Llewyn and forcing him to pay for an abortion on his own when he is near penniless.
  • Jerkass with a Heart of Gold: Llewyn isn't without compassion, from his concern for the cat to being willing to pay for Jean's abortion. Most notably, unlike Jean or Roland Turner, Llewyn apologizes for his mistakes and genuinely feels guilty when he upsets people. This makes his failure to stop making the same mistakes over and over all the more frustrating.
  • The Last DJ: Llewyn sees himself this way, as aloof from all the phony and shallow careerism that he sees in his contemporaries like Troy Nelson. He sees any attempt even to earn enough money to settle down and start a family as "selling out," so perhaps he is just making excuses for his own failures. However, he also refuses to play for friends at a dinner party, claiming "that's just my job" — again, this may be a cover, as he's upset about being reminded of Mike.
  • Mood Dissonance: Llewyn plays a song for his father at a retirement home. He waits for a response, only to realize moments later that his father soiled himself.
  • Never My Fault: Jean places all the blame for her adulterous pregnancy on Llewyn and lambasts him for "sleeping with other people's women," one of which is her. Llewyn lampshades this attitude, and tries to bring up the expression "it takes two to tango," but is brushed off by Jean.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Various characters are based on figures from the early 1960s folk scene.
    • Llewyn Davis is an expy of Dave Van Ronk, and the film was inspired by his autobiography The Mayor Of MacDougal Street. Though it's worth noting that Van Ronk was quite popular and well-liked by his contemporaries and had a fairly successful career, performing until his death in 2002 and even receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from ASCAP in 1997.
    • Al Cody is a self-styled wandering cowboy singer whose real name is revealed to be Arthur Milgrum. In this regard, he resembles Ramblin' Jack Elliott (born Elliott Charles Adnopoz), who cultivated a similar image yet came from a middle-class Brooklyn Jewish background.
    • Troy Nelson, an idealistic, pacifistic soldier, is based on Tom Paxton. He sings the latter's hit "The Last Thing on My Mind," now a folk standard.
    • Chicago folk impresario Bud Grossman bears considerable similarity to Albert Grossman. His venue was also called the Gate of Horn.
    • Jim and Jean are an amalgam of various performing duos, including a (not actually married) pair of the same name. Their performance with Troy Nelson is likely a Shout-Out to Peter, Paul and Mary. Jim bears some resemblance to Paul Clayton.
    • Bud Grossman talks about putting together a 2 guy, 1 girl group, probably another oblique reference to Peter, Paul and Mary.
    • Elizabeth Hobby, the Appalachian singer that Llewyn heckles in the Gaslight, resembles Jean Ritchie. She is played by real-life folk singer Nancy Blake.
    • Exaggerated with the final performer at the Gaslight. After Llewyn finishes his song, "Fare Thee Well" to a very positive response from his audience and in front of the Times, the next performer is Bob Dylan (played by an actor of the appropriate age), with his song, called "Farewell". Now, what are Llewyn's odds of being remembered?
  • No Ending: We don't know what Llewyn does or where he goes after getting beaten up by Elizabeth Hobby's husband.
  • Posthumous Character: Mike Timlin, Llewyn's singing partner, is revealed to have recently killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. This loss affects many of the characters in different ways, but is rarely directly addressed. It is clearly a painful memory for Llewyn, based on his behaviour at the Gorfeins'.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Bud Grossman has Llewyn audition for him even though he's shown up completely unannounced. And, although he doesn't think Llewyn has what it takes to be a major solo act, he offers him the possibility of being part of a trio that Grossman is putting together.
  • Red Herring: There are frequent story hooks that tease a shift in the plot, but they're all passed by so that the film remains a "Shaggy Dog" Story:
    • Llewyn overcomes obstacles to get to a possible gig, but gets turned away, so the whole trip was a waste.
    • Llewyn is tempted to visit Akron, where his former girlfriend moved with their son, but he passes on by.
    • Llewyn's sleeping passenger slams his head on the dashboard, but he just sleeps right through it.
    • Llewyn's senile father seems to have a breakthrough, but he was just having a bowel movement.
  • Right in Front of Me: Llewyn, when recording "Please Mr. Kennedy":
    (to Jim) Look, I'm happy from the gig, but who... who wrote this?
    Jim: (offended) I did.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: In-Universe. "Please Mr. Kennedy" is a novelty song about manned space flight, the first instances of which took place in 1961.
  • Running Gag: Jean calling Llewyn an "asshole." Almost a Verbal Tic.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: As usual for the Coens. Llewyn has not managed to change anything about his life. He's still homeless, without a career or prospects.
  • Shout-Out: The titular album is a reference to 1963's Inside Dave Van Ronk.
    • Llewyn's novelty song "Please Mr. Kennedy" is a reference to the real Billboard #1 hit "Mr. Custer" by Larry Verne.
  • Shut Up, Kirk!: Turner, twice; when Llewyn tells him his old partner killed himself, clearly hoping it'll make him feel guilty enough to stop heckling him, Turner's only response is to make fun of Mike for jumping off the George Washington Bridge rather than the Brooklyn Bridge. When Llewyn straight-up threatens to shove Turner's cane up his own ass, Turner, completely unfazed, responds by threatening to kill him with Santeria.
  • Sir Swearsalot: Jean becomes this in any conversation with Llewyn.
  • Slimeball: Pappi Corsicato. In the middle of the idealistic Village folk scene he's using the worst kind of casting couch practices.
  • Starving Artist: Llewyn Davis lives a very hand-to-mouth, semi-vagrant existence crashing on the couches of acquaintances and relatives, at least those he has not completely antagonised yet.
  • Stylistic Suck: "Please Mr. Kennedy" doesn't suck, exactly, but Phil Ochs it isn't. Not only are the lyrics as corny as possible, even for 1961, but they have so many Painful Rhymes ("perhaps you'll"/"capsule", "libido"/"widow") that Llewyn can't believe someone wrote it.
  • Three Chords and the Truth: Lampshaded and viciously mocked by jazz musician Roland Turner.
  • Tragic Dream: What the whole movie is about.
  • Tsundere: Jean never tires of putting down Llewyn and telling him what a piece of shit he is, but is still willing to let him crash at her house and even cares about what he's doing with his life.
  • Uncertain Doom: Roland Turner has a heroin overdose and Llewyn leaves him unconscious in a car in the winter, so it's uncertain whether he survives or not.
  • Visual Title Drop: It's the name of Llewyn's debut solo album. Grossman asks him to play "something from Inside Llewyn Davis".
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Based on the memoir by folk artist Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Van Ronk ultimately had a good deal more success than Llewyn, however.
  • Who Writes This Crap?!: Expressed by Llewyn before he records "Please Mr. Kennedy" with Jim.
    Llewyn: Hey, look, I'm happy for the gig, but who... who wrote this?
    Jim: (offended) I did.